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Teaching to the Test?

“Teaching to the Test” refers to the practice of teaching in a manner designed to improve test results at the expense of some superior form of learning. Currently, the phrase is most commonly used as an attack on certain standardized tests. In New York, for example, students take annual standardized tests in grades 3 through 8.

If the standardized tests are competency tests, which I think they should be, the risk of “teaching to the test” should be related to the treatment of slower students that are at risk of failing to reach measured competency unless the teaching methods are targeted to the particular testing content. Then, for these students, the risk is that focusing on their ability to answer some form of basic competency questions is materially worse than educating them in some other manner that won’t allow them to best answer these same questions. I have always been skeptical that the probability and cost of this scenario could outweigh the benefits of basic competency testing.

To better inform my opinion on this issue, I reviewed the New York 2008 math and ELA tests for grades 3 through 8. I was surprised to learn that all of the recent tests are well-organized on the state website. I randomly picked a few pages from each test and compiled them in two files (math and ELA). To me, the questions seem to be fair and straightforward. I have difficulty understanding what is meant by “teaching to the test” with these sorts of questions and how it could be damaging to the students. So, I ask the reader: What are some examples of how someone might “teach to the test” with respect to these particular questions? How would such a method be harmful to the student? I would love to hear from teachers and school leaders in New York that are particularly concerned with the “teaching to the test” phenomenon.

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